Haute couture? Moi?
As you know by now, we are masters at finding other things to do while we are supposed to be working on our DIY projects. So what did we come up with on a rainy Saturday when we couldn’t paint outdoors? We took advantage of our Seattle Art Museum membership to attend the members-only debut of Yves Saint Laurent: The Perfection of Style.
I expected it to be fabulous. I had no idea.
A wide, quiet hallway led into the main exhibit area. Here was displayed a collection of paper dolls that Saint Laurent created when he was a young teen. He’d put on fashion shows for his sisters, and designed clothes for them. These dolls had never been displayed before, and came from the collection of YSL’s lifetime partner, Pierre Bergé (as did nearly the entire exhibition). Lesson: If your son wants to play with paper dolls, let him.
I was amazed to find a paper dress that I’d owned myself. Not a real Yves Saint Laurent, of course, but a vintage-style knock-off that I’d made in the 1980s. (Something that most people don’t know about me is that from my late teens into my thirties, I made most of my own clothes—everything from jeans and t-shirts to tailored suits and coats. I wasn’t a designer, but I did customize commercial patterns.)
Then we rounded the corner into a bright room and were dazzled by what looked like a stylish party of headless or hairless models.
Before he turned 20, Saint Laurent was hired by Christian Dior himself. Before long, Dior picked Yves to become his successor … and then died unexpectedly, leaving Saint Laurent as the head designer at the House of Dior at the age of 21. I don’t know what you were doing when you were 21, but I didn’t know my posterior from my elbow.
If that wasn’t enough, Saint Laurent virtually saved the business in his first season by designing the wildly successful, flared “trapeze dress,” a radical departure from the constricting styles of the 1950s. However, subsequent collections weren’t as well received and, like a football coach after two losing seasons, House of Dior fired him. Also in 1960, he was drafted into the army, which, as you’d expect, was a disastrous experience for a young, gay clothing designer. After being hospitalized for depression and leaving the army, he sued Dior and won his job back, but he soon left to open his own fashion house, Yves Saint Laurent, with his partner, Pierre Bergé.
In 1966, Saint Laurent was the first designer to produce a prêt-a-porté (ready-to-wear) line at his famous YSL Rive Gauche stores. Departing from haute couture and venturing into retail revolutionized access to designer clothing. (Haute couture means, literally, “high sewing.” Couturiers make custom, one-of-a-kind clothing for high-end clients.)
The Seattle exhibit was organized roughly in chronological order, making it easy to understand how Saint Laurent’s designs were influenced and evolved. The walls of the main room were covered with collection boards, with his sketches at the bottom of the page, fabric swatches above, and notes about models at the top. I loved his sketches. The line work is spare, fluid, and confident. The figures almost seem to move.
Click to enlarge these and appreciate the detail.
He even drew a comic strip called Schmuck and Pluck, although I don’t know the context. I wanted to stand there and painstakingly read it (having forgotten all the French I never knew), but the crowd pushed me on.
Enough of history—the stars of this party were the clothes.
This grouping took me right back to my college years in the 1970s, and my favorite military-inspired raincoat.
How about this appliqued velvet wedding dress? On the front: “Love me forever.” On the back: “Or never.”
In the mid-70s, Saint Laurent found inspiration in the Opera-Ballets Russes. I’d wear this graceful dress today.
A Romanian-styled dress featured beaded and embroidered motifs inspired by Henri Matisse, next to a gold-embroidered evening ensemble. Yves seemed to gaze up from the photo to chat with his model.
One of my favorite designs, but admittedly hard to sit in.
In 1966, Saint Laurent designed the first tuxedo for women, followed by the first pantsuit in 1967, changing forever the way women dress for work (and political debates). Here, Yves and his sister Michele pose next to some of his groundbreaking pantsuits.
I would have loved to wear this black silk evening gown back in my salad days … or now, if only I could fit into it. These clothes were tiny.
A tall spray of hat forms was the centerpiece of the next large room. Along the perimeter were examples of how these garments come to life. First, they’re sewn up in toile (pronounced twahl), a lightweight twill fabric; then they’re remade in the final fabrication. I’d never have the patience to sew a garment twice. I’d dive right into the expensive silk and ruin it. (Actually, I did make a muslin model of an important dress once. I wasn’t pleased with it, and scrapped the project entirely. I’ve messed up many others.) You can see some toile examples in the far corner.
More of my favorites:
These wool jersey Pop Art dresses impressed me with their construction. If you’ve ever tried to sew a smooth curved seam, you know it’s not easy. These seams were nearly invisible, and flat as a flitter. It looked like the colored pattern was printed on the fabric. The sparkly gold tights were a nice touch, too.
I’m not a big jewelry wearer … but wow!
The final hallway, called “From darkness to an explosion of color,” was artfully designed. Angled panels covered in fabric swatches progressed in prismatic order, shielding the upcoming dresses from view. Then, passing each set of panels, we were treated to groupings of dramatically lit mannequins. Had this been a live runway show, the models would be walking past us. Instead, we were walking past them.
Again, I marveled at the exquisite workmanship. Look at this silk coat, as light as a feather. The lapel is perfectly turned and precisely shaped. If you’ve ever seen very high-end clothes (I have only once, long ago in New York City) you’ve seen that they are hand made. Of course, it wasn’t Saint Laurent himself who wielded the needle, but my hat’s off to whoever worked this magic in silk the weight of cobweb.
Every fashion show ends with a bridal gown (or at least they used to—I don’t know if that’s still true, as I’ve never been to one), and this exhibit was no exception. I’d prefer the “Love me forever” version, if I had to pick.
And then it was over. I felt giddy, like I’d spent the day hob-nobbing with people way, way out of my class while wearing clothes I bought at Costco.
We walked, bedazzled, back to our car through the Seattle rain and wind. The spell was broken.